New York based Howardena Pindell is an African American abstract artist whose work deals with issues of feminism, racism, slavery, and exploitation. Pindell’s work over the last fifty years ranged from her early representational paintings, such as self-portraits, still-life paintings, and urban scenes, to the densely collaged abstract canvases she produced starting in the late 1960s and videos in the 1980s.
The hole punch has been Pindell’s favorite tool. She used it to modify sheets of metal and paper, turning them into spray paint stencils. She then used the leftover confetti-like disks to make pointillist collages with added glitter, talcum powder, etc. One example, shown in LACMA’s 2019 Outliers Exhibition, is a 1977 mixed-media work of small rectangular pieces of linen, loosely stitched together and overlaid with hole punched paper dots, mixed with paint and glitter. This work shows how she melds abstract painting, structured on a grid, with the craft of traditional quilt-making.
Pindell is also a video artist. Her blurry, enigmatic “Video Drawings” consists of photographed TV screens overlaid with sheets of acetate and scattered with tiny, hand-drawn numbers.
Pindell received a B.F.A. at Boston University where she trained as a figurative academic painter. She received her M.F.A. degree from Yale University and shifted away from figuration into Abstract Expressionism under the influence of Al Held, one of her teachers, and Helen Frankenthaler, a visiting artist who was encouraging to her. After graduation she found an inhospitable reception in New York. She was going against the widespread expectation that young African American artists should only create work about social issues.
In 1967, she applied for a teaching position and sent out 50 applications She received 50 rejections. She then looked was for any job she could find and wound up in a vibrant New York art scene where Abstract Expressionism was being revived. She worked in the curatorial ranks at the Museum of Modern Art and began teaching at what is now Stony Brook University and has been there since 1979.
When she discovered that she was allergic to oil paint, she turned to acrylic and spray paint and exhibited her work sporadically at small galleries, which showed art of African Americans and other minorities.
In 1979, Pindell suffered a shattering memory loss from a near-fatal car accident. Her work became more autobiographical as she tried to heal herself and piece together her lost memories. Eight months after the accident, Pindell made a 12-minute video “Free, White, and 21.” It is Pindell’s best-known video as it details the racism both she and her mother endured throughout their lives. She portrays the two main characters: herself and the bigoted white woman as referenced in the video’s title. Pindell wears a mask and a blonde wig as her white character dismisses the experiences of racism, relayed in the video.
Her installation “Hunger” deals with the use of New York canals as conduits for abolitionists to transport and house slaves during the 18th century. It includes a set of 18th-century shackles used on enslaved children.
Pindell constantly addresses racism and sexism that she faced in the art world. She and Carolyn Martin founded “Entitled: Black Women Artists,” a co-operative for only black female artists. There has been a survey of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Her work has been shown at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is in the permanent collections of MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Newark Museum, Fogg Museum in Boston, and the Whitney Museum.